Meera and Rafi Shaikh run the Centre for Development in Ahmedabad. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand they reflect on the communal situation in Gujarat and talk about their own work.
Q: In the aftermath of the devastating violence in 2002 how do you look at inter-communal relations in Gujarat today?
A: The situation is still very tense. The victims of the carnage are yet to get justice and most Muslims are still living in tremendous fear. Fascist forces are so deeply-entrenched now that no one can rule out a repeat of the gory events of 2002. The problem is not just of communalism or communal tension, however. There are so many other structural problems that are connected to communal conflict, such as mounting poverty and unemployment as a result of privatisation and ‘globalisation’, unchecked plunder by multinational corporations, growing caste contradictions and the lack of educational opportunities for the poor, problems that are increasing by the day. This situation is easily exploited by Hindutva groups to engineer clashes and riots between different communities, particularly between Dalits and Muslims.
The situation is being made even more grave with the enforced ghettoisation of the Muslims all over Gujarat. So, in the Walled City of Ahmedabad, where we work, Hindus and Muslims used to live together, but now most Hindus have moved out and the area is now mainly Muslim, with some Dalits living there as well. Likewise, Muslims have been forced to move from other areas to the Walled City and to the sprawling Juhapura ghetto. This reduces the chances of interaction between people of different communities. Earlier, they used to live close to each other and so shared in each others’ festivities, but now this is not possible.
Q: It is said that many Dalits have been co-opted by Hindutva forces, and were used by them to attack Muslims in 2002. How do you account for this?
A: The Hindutva groups have been hard at work to co-opt the Dalits all over Gujarat while simultaneously working to preserve ‘upper’ caste hegemony. So, they select local Dalit ‘leaders’, pay them a small salary and offer them some small post. This gives these ‘leaders’ a sense of importance and recognition which the wider Hindu society denies their people. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) organises religious functions in Dalit slums, using these occasions to Hinduise the Dalits and to spread anti-Muslim propaganda.
While Hindutva is a major factor for the decline of the radical Dalit movement, which, in turn, has allowed Dalits to be used to attack Muslims, there are other factors at work as well. NGOs, too, have played a role in this, in the name of ‘professionalism’, by pumping in massive amounts of money in the name of ‘Dalit welfare’. It is not that NGOs are all doing nothing at all, but there is a definite negative impact on the sort of work they are able to do once they get enormous amounts of funds and start operating from fancy offices in posh areas, no longer being rooted in the slums and villages. This has led to a ‘professional’, rather than personal, response to issues. This has also led to a steady de-politicisation of many Dalit youth so that now they don’t speak about confronting the system but, instead, seek upward social mobility within the system. The NGO-isation process has led to Dalit issues becoming simply funded projects sponsored by well-heeled agencies. So, now few people are willing to take the plunge and commit themselves for Dalit liberation or say against fascism or communalism unless it is a funded project. Dissent today is being consciously tamed and domesticated, taken out from the streets and moved into seminar halls and workshops and conferences. To add to this process is the decline of the trade union movement, with mills closing down and trade union leaders becoming part of the system.
Q: What sort of work have you been engaged in in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage?
A: While the state-sponsored genocidal attacks on Muslims in Gujarat were underway, we, along with other friends, helped out with relief work in the Shah Alam refugee camp in Ahmedabad, where thousands of Muslims, who were forced out of their homes, had taken shelter. Because in the Old City of Ahmedabad, where we have been working for several years, Dalits were used by Hindutva forces to attack Muslims, we felt it urgent to bring Dalit and Muslim youth together. So, one of the first things we did was to organise a meeting of Dalits and Muslims, some of whom had taken part in the violence. After this, we took a group of Dalit and Muslim youth, many of whom had participated in the violence, to Panchmadi for a week, where they trekked in the mountains and slept and ate together and washed each other’s plates and drank from the same glass, all this for the very first time. They bonded so well. It broke down the negative stereotypes that they had of each other. One of the youth in the group, Abbas, had seen his house being looted by a Dalit who was also in the group. After spending a week together with Abbas and other Muslims, this Dalit boy felt so bad about what he had done that when the group returned to Ahmedabad he returned all that he had looted from Abbas’ house to him.
This sort of exposure trip, bringing Dalit and Muslim youth together, really worked very well in helping to bridge the divide. We organised a similar trip to Mount Abu in early 2003. As in our previous trip, we used this occasion to discuss issues related to communalism, poverty, ‘globalisation’, unemployment, caste oppression and gender injustice. In order to sustain the contacts that these youth had established during these trips we set up a small library in Dani Limbda, in the Walled City of Ahmedabad, which serves also as a discussion and study centre.
So, the point is that while it is necessary to work with the victims of violence, as most NGOs do, it is also important to work with those who participate in it, as is the case of several of those whom we took along for these trips. It is not that all those who participate in riots are unredeemable. There are definitely some among them who can be won over to the secular cause. For instance, now we have a Dalit youth in our team, who was earlier with the VHP and who had burnt down a house belonging to a Muslim during the carnage. And he is now committed to the cause of communalism and Dalit-Muslim solidarity. Just the other day he helped out a Muslim woman with money to get admission for her children in a school. Some other Dalits who are part of our group were earlier with the VHP but now stridently oppose the efforts of the VHP-walas to enter their localities.
Q: Speaking about Dalit-Muslim solidarity, the importance of which you stress, what do you think has been the attitude of Muslim organisations in Gujarat to this issue?
A: Muslim organisations in Gujarat have done little, if at all, to seriously consider this issue. They work almost only for Muslims, and do little if at all, for other communities, particularly Dalits. Dominant Muslim elites appear to prefer to relate to ‘upper’ caste Hindu elites rather than to Dalits. So, Muslim organisations might welcome a Rath Yatra if it passes through their area, but they would never give money to impoverished Dalits to go to school. Just the other day an Islamic organisation opened a hospital in Ahmedabad and it called a Brahmin priest to inaugurate it. The Jamaat-i Islami invites ‘upper’ caste religious leaders to address inter-faith dialogue meetings, but it has rarely, if ever, invited Dalits or Tribals. The point is that such Muslim organisations refuse to recognise is that Dalit-Muslim solidarity is really an urgent necessity, particularly because Hindutva forces have a clea
r-cut strategy of using Dalits and Muslims, equally impoverished communities, to attack and kill each other. Dalits and Muslims live in the same localities, and so such violence can easily be instigated. Maybe the reason that these Muslim organisations do not talk about the Dalit issue is that if they do, then the common Muslims, most of who share the same living conditions as the Dalits, many of them being of Dalit background, would start asserting themselves, and this would seriously challenge the hegemony that Muslim elites want to maintain within the broader Muslim community.
Q: What significant changes do you notice in the attitude of Muslim organisations in Gujarat in the wake of the carnage?
A: Before 2002, elite Muslims showed little concern about the issue of communalism. There have been several massive communal riots and engineered anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat before, but these did not really affect the elites. The victims were almost entirely Muslims living in the slums or in the narrow lanes of the Walled City of Ahmedabad. But, for the first time, in 2002 all Muslims, including the elites, were attacked. The posh homes and shops of rich Muslims were looted and many of them were also killed. And the perpetrators were not just Dalits or slum-dwellers but even middle-class people. So, now, even Muslim elites are being forced to think beyond their own class interests. There is now a definite enthusiasm for modern education, for Muslims realise that they cannot rely on the government and the wider civil society, which treat them with contempt and hostility, to defend their interests and even their lives. Some Muslim groups are also now talking about communal harmony and peace. This is, of course, a good thing but it isn’t enough. We have to also talk about economic issues, poverty, the continued social boycott of Muslims in many parts of Gujarat, mounting unemployment and so on, issues that affect Muslims and Dalits particularly. Only on that basis can real solidarity between different marginalised and oppressed communities develop.
You can’t continue to imagine, as Islamic groups and the maulvis of the madrasas insist, that simply by mouthing religious slogans you can satisfy people or that simply by organising joint prayer meetings the problem of communalism will be solved. The problem cannot be resolved through conferences either. Our dialogue work has to move into the slums ands the streets, bringing together marginalised communities or marginalised sections of different communities on a common secular plank, mobilising them on the basis of common social, economic and political issues. Organising joint programmes and activities, say cultural work or the sort of trips that we undertook with Dalit and Muslim youth, are also very useful. It gives people the chance to see the ‘other’ as really human, breaking down deeply-rooted stereotypes.
Then, also, we also need to work with ‘upper’ caste Hindus, many of whom remain staunch backers of Hindutva politics. Some of them, too, can be won over to the cause of communal harmony and social justice. Ignoring them can only play into the hands of the Hindutva forces. It is, of course, easier and safer for most people to work among the victims of violence, rather than perpetrators, because the former are a sort of ‘captive audience’ for them and are seen as ‘passive’ and ‘non-threatening’. That is what some NGOs do. They say, ‘If you want the relief we are giving, you will have to listen to us’. We must guard ourselves against this tendency. The struggle against fascism thus has to operate at different fronts, and must not remain limited only to working among its victims.